There are two theories about the wisdom of crowds. In his 2005 book on the subject, James Surowieki suggested that large groups of people are "smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant — better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future." In the 1841 book, "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds," Charles Mackay wrote: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." snap power usb charger

Crowdfunding icon Kickstarter provides a good test of which thesis is correct — whether crowdfunding represents the collective wisdom or the collective madness. A good example might be this SnapPower USB charger, which is built into a duplex outlet cover plate. At the time of this writing, the plate has raised over 16 times its target with a full 37 days to go. And it's not just the Kickstarter investors who like this; the whole Internet seems to be gaga, with headlines like "The Best Kickstarter Idea We’ve Seen In A While"

There is nothing particularly new about USB outlets being integrated into electric outlets; they have been around for years. The innovation in the SnapPower charger is that you do not have to remove the whole outlet and replace it; you just replace the cover plate. Replacing an outlet isn't exactly brain surgery, but you should turn off the power at the circuit breaker first. With SnapPower you don't have to do that and mess with wires. 

But how smart is this really? Let's count the concerns:

  • The connection is made by a sort of spring compression of a dome onto the top of a screw that wasn't designed for this, so there is probably a very small single point of contact. Over time, oxidation might mess this up. 
  • It is using the current standard USB A-plug at one amp or 5 watts, which is underpowered. An iPad charger is 2.1 amps or 12 watts, so it will take much longer to charge devices on this unit.
  • The A-plug is now obsolete, being replaced by the reversible C-plug that's on the new Apple notebook.
  • It is fixed, which limits your flexibility of where you do your charging, so you will still need the wall-wart.
By far the biggest drawback is the use of an obsolete standard at low power. The new USB standard 3.1 pumps out 100 watts through an easier to use C connector. I think it likely that in a couple of years, C connectors will be standard on every outlet, and that it will probably by the plug in the house of tomorrow that will run on direct current. 

I guess this is easy to use and install, but I sure can't see what all the excitement is about. When it comes to the wisdom of crowds, I'm with Charles Mackay on this one.

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.